The opening moments of Honeyland (2019) are astonishing for their breath-taking natural beauty. In this forgotten corner of North Macedonia, vast mountains stretch uninterrupted across the horizon and the land, Eden-like, is wild and untouched. A lone woman, Hatidze edges along a rocky cliffside. From a crack in the mountain, she removes a section of rock to reveal a mess of hidden beehives beneath. With her bare hands she gently removes giant slabs of honeycomb. As bees swirl around her, Hatidze sings the mantra ‘Half for them-half for me’. Returning home, to a stone hut amongst the ruins of a long-abandoned village, Hatidze tends to her sick mother Nazife. The pair survive on jars of honey Hatidze sells in the nearest city Skopje, trips that puncture their almost total isolation. It is a life of hardship and of beauty, lived in delicate communion with the natural world.
But with the sudden arrival of cattle farmer Hussein Sam and his family on the land nearby, comes sudden disruption to the delicate balance of life here. Despite their differences Hatidze forges connection with the family, even beginning to teach Hussein and his sons how to keep bees guided by the tradition of always leaving the hive with half of the honey. But this harmony is short lived, when the allure of profit and pressures of poverty find Hussein disregarding Hatidze’s advice. Hussein becomes a chaotic force upon the landscape with consequences that put Hatizde’s entire way of life at risk.
Drawn initially to the region by a commission to produce a short film on the conservation efforts in the area surrounding the river Bregalnica, Directors Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska saw their focus shift upon meeting Hatidze one of the last of the nomadic beekeepers in Europe. Shot in verité style over the course of three years, the pair would go on to capture with great sensitivity, four seasons of Hatidze’s life. Through a single figure, Stefanov and Kotevska create a visually poetic film, a personal epic which forms a captivating allegory for the modern relationship to nature, the dangers of over-farming and capitalism’s exploitation of the natural world.
Every inch of Honeyland is visually stunning. Stefanov and Kotevska’s portrayal of the natural world provides a window into a land untouched. Nature feels ever-present as the region moves from the warm colour palette of the summer months to the cool white snow which descends in the winter. Hatidze’s practice of wild beekeeping naturally forms Honeyland’s heart – amid the hum of hive, honey glistens and bees disappear into honeycomb.
Stefanov and Kotevska also find beauty in the social sphere. The many candlelit scenes which find Hatidze caring for her mother are striking both for their visual beauty and their intimacy. Even amid the bubbling chaos of the Sam family’s make-shift home nearby the camera is totally invisible, creating a level of intimacy that makes it hard to believe the film is not scripted. Honeyland’s protagonist Hatidze is magnetic. Brimming with natural charisma and warmth – she is as Stefanov and Kotevska term her ‘a born star’. Her gentleness and vulnerability are a pleasure to watch but it is her weather worn face, with its deep creases and expressive eyes that hold the attention of any scene.
Despite Hatidze’s optimism, life on the edge of society has cultivated a sense a deep loneliness that emerges as speech strays into the profound. There is often a Beckettian quality to Hatidze and her ageing mother Nazife’s conversations found in moments where Nazife asks ‘will there be spring?’ or says ‘I have become a tree’. In one particularly memorable scene Hatidze meditatively admits to the Sam family’s eldest child ‘if I’d had a son like you, things might be different’.
Beyond the fates of Hatidze, her bees, and the Sam family, Honeyland finds unique power in its potential for allegory. In Hussein’s wilful compromise of Hatidze’s ancient beekeeping principles lies an almost fable-like account of capitalism’s effects on the natural world. In this light, Honeyland becomes a timely portrait of man’s relationship to nature – both our potential for communion and modernity’s tendency toward destruction.
Watch the trailer here:
Where can you find it?
Honeyland is available on On Demand for a few £ in all the normal places.